Editor’s Picks: The 20+ Best Retinol Creams (and How to Choose the Right One for Your Skin)

Age-defying treatments for all.
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Best retinol cream

If you're concerned about the signs of aging, retinol cream is a must-try. 

Besides helping to reduce fine lines and wrinkles, it can also reverse sun damage, smooth rough texture, fade dark spots and even minimize breakouts.

But finding the RIGHT retinol cream isn't easy. 

Over-the-counter, you can choose from not only retinol but other types of retinoids, including retinol esters, retinaldehyde and retinoic acid esters. 

They all come in different strengths and different formulations, making it a tough job to figure out which one will suit your skin.

That's where this guide can help. I found all the best retinol creams on the market, ranging from mild to strong, and from lightweight to rich. (If you prefer an even lighter texture, see my guide to the best retinol serums instead!)

Before I share my picks, here's what I look for in a retinol cream.

How to Choose a Retinol Cream

The first general rule is to always avoid retinol products in jar packaging. Jars expose the active ingredient to light and air, making it oxidize faster and lose its effectiveness. Instead, choose products that come in opaque tubes or bottles with airless pumps.

Next, look for one of the following types of retinoids in the ingredients list. (Find out more about them in my retinoid vs retinol tutorial!)

  • Retinyl propionate: The only effective retinol ester. In low amounts, it's suitable for sensitive skin; at high amounts (five percent or more), it can produce comparable results to retinol and even retinoic acid.
  • Retinol: The most common over-the-counter retinoid. Start at 0.3 percent or lower if you're a beginner. Once you build a tolerance, aim for 0.5 to one percent for the best results.
  • Retinaldehyde (retinal): The direct precursor to retinoic acid, and about 20 times more active than retinol. It's usually found in a 0.05 percent or 0.1 percent concentration, and is less irritating than retinol.
  • Retinyl retinoate: A retinoic acid ester that is eight times more active than retinol, with less irritation. 
  • Hydroxypinacolone retinoate: Another retinoic acid ester (also known as "granactive retinoid" when combined with the solvent dimethyl isosorbide). Although the strength is comparable to a prescription retinoid, it produces little to no irritation. Note: HPR is not available in Canada, where it is considered a drug.

Other criteria to consider include...

  • Fragrance: Synthetic fragrance and essential oils are the most common skin irritants. 
  • PUFAs: Oils high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, a.k.a. PUFAs, are volatile and oxidize quickly, generating harmful free radicals. I suggest avoiding any products with PUFA oils in the first five ingredients. The more PUFAs a product contains, the faster it should be used up, ideally within three to six months.
  • Silicones: These film-formers can worsen acne and dehydration, and may interfere with the penetration of active ingredients (including retinoids).
  • Parabens: Although they work well as a preservative, parabens have estrogenic activity.
  • Dyes: Artificial colourants are associated with allergies and skin irritation.
  • Cruelty-free status: All the brands below are cruelty-free except for Avène, La Roche-Posay and Vichy. (And the cruelty-free status of Advanced Skin Technology is unknown.)

Few products in this guide tick off ALL these boxes, so you'll need to prioritize which ones are the most important to you. For example, my skin can probably tolerate a retinol with some fragrance, if I make sure there's no fragrance in the rest of my routine. Or, I might be okay with a retinol that contains dyes and parabens, because the rest of my products are super-clean. It all depends on your skin, your routine, and your budget!

The Best Retinol Creams, from A to Z

A313 Vitamin A Pommade

✓Retinyl propionate ✓Fragrance-free ✓PUFA-free ✓Silicone-free ✓Paraben-free ✓Dye-free ✓Cruelty-free

A313 Vitamin A Pommade

A313 Vitamin A Pommade

  • Details: A313 Vitamin A Pommade contains the retinol esters retinyl propionate, retinyl acetate and retinyl palmitate, but in a concentration equivalent to 0.12 percent retinoic acid. That means it's one of the strongest over-the-counter options, on par with a 0.1 percent prescription Retin-A! It has an ointment texture (similar to Vaseline), but even acne-prone skin should not find it comedogenic. See my review here.
  • Best for: Normal to oily skin and/or experienced retinol users. If you're dry, sensitive or new to retinoids, start with a milder product first and then slowly work your way up to this strength.

Advanced Skin Technology Green Cream High Potency Retinol Level 3

✓Retinol ✓PUFA-free ✓Low-silicone 

Advanced Skin Technology Green Cream High Potency Retinol Level 3

Advanced Skin Technology Green Cream High Potency Retinol Level 3

  • Details: Advanced Skin Technology Green Cream High Potency Retinol Level 3 contains 0.3 percent retinol, so it's gentle but still has enough of the active to deliver some results. Alcohol is acting as a penetration enhancer, and the other ingredients counteract its drying effects (or you can apply a separate moisturizer on top). 
  • Best for: Retinol beginners and sensitive skin.

Advanced Skin Technology Green Cream High Potency Retinol Level 6

✓Retinol ✓PUFA-free ✓Low-silicone 

Advanced Skin Technology Green Cream High Potency Retinol Level 6

Advanced Skin Technology Green Cream High Potency Retinol Level 6

  • Details: Advanced Skin Technology Green Cream High Potency Retinol Level 6 contains 0.6 percent retinol, which is about medium-strength and a good starting point for most people. Like Level 3, it does include alcohol to enhance penetration, which I don't consider a problem (just use more moisturizer if it makes you dry). 
  • Best for: All skin except sensitive.

Advanced Skin Technology Green Cream High Potency Retinol Level 9

✓Retinol ✓PUFA-free ✓Low-silicone 

Advanced Skin Technology Green Cream High Potency Retinol Level 9

Advanced Skin Technology Green Cream High Potency Retinol Level 9

  • Details: Advanced Skin Technology Green Cream High Potency Retinol Level 9 contains 0.9 percent retinol, making it one of the strongest over-the-counter retinol options. The rest of the formula is the same as Level 3 and Level 6, with alcohol as a penetration enhancer to help it get into the skin. (That, along with the high level of retinol, will require that you use a good moisturizer to offset any dryness.) 
  • Best for: Experienced retinol users. (According to the brand, it is for people who have already used Level 6 without side effects—starting out at Level 9 is not recommended.) 

African Botanics Retinal Night Cream

✓Retinaldehyde ✓Low-PUFA ✓Fragrance-free ✓Silicone-free ✓Paraben-free ✓Dye-free ✓Cruelty-free

African Botanics Retinal Night Cream

African Botanics Retinal Night Cream

  • Details: African Botanics Retinal Night Cream is powered by retinaldehyde, which is encapsulated for extra stability. Besides the signs of aging, it also targets pores and pigmentation with lactic acid, azelaic acid, fulvic acid and zinc. The moisturizing base is comprised of marula oil, squalane and fatty alcohols.
  • Best for: All skin.

Avène TriAcnéal Night Smoothing Lotion

✓Retinaldehyde ✓PUFA-free ✓Silicone-free ✓Paraben-free

Avene TriAcneal Night Smoothing Lotion

Avène TriAcnéal Night Smoothing Lotion

  • Details: Avène TriAcnéal Night Smoothing Lotion contains 0.1 percent retinaldehyde, which treats not only the signs of aging but also acne. Since retinaldehyde is said to be about 20 times more active than retinol, this would be roughly equivalent to a two percent retinol. The lotion formula also includes exfoliating enzymes and antibacterial agents.
  • Best for: Acne-prone skin. (But I think normal skin could use this, too, even if you don't experience breakouts.)

Chantecaille Retinol Intense+

✓Retinol ✓Low-PUFA ✓Low-silicone ✓Paraben-free ✓Dye-free ✓Cruelty-free

Chantecaille Retinol Intense+

Chantecaille Retinol Intense+

  • Details: Chantecaille Retinol Intense+ contains an unknown concentration of retinol. All the brand discloses is that it's "twice the amount"—but compared to what is unclear. I assume it's probably in the 0.3 to 0.5 percent range, so fairly mild (despite having "intense" in the name). The rest of the cream is 81.3 percent natural and includes a good amount of niacinamide for brightening. 
  • Best for: Retinol beginners, or anyone seeking a retinol with natural ingredients.

Clark’s Botanicals Retinol Rescue Overnight Cream

✓Retinol ✓PUFA-free ✓Silicone-free ✓Paraben-free ✓Dye-free ✓Cruelty-free

Clark's Botanicals Retinol Rescue Overnight Cream

Clark's Botanicals Retinol Rescue Overnight Cream

  • Details: Clark's Botanicals Retinol Rescue Overnight Cream fights fine lines, sun damage and large pores with time-released retinol and an encapsulated vitamin C derivative. (I'm guessing there's around 0.3 percent retinol in here.) Colloidal oatmeal helps prevent irritation, while glycerin, shea butter and jojoba oil moisturize.
  • Best for: All skin. 

CosMedix Define Age-Defying Treatment

✓Retinol ✓Low-PUFA ✓Silicone-free ✓Paraben-free ✓Dye-free ✓Cruelty-free

CosMedix Define Age-Defying Treatment

CosMedix Define Age-Defying Treatment

  • Details: CosMedix Define Age-Defying Treatment contains a two percent "retinol AGP complex," which means the retinol is encapsulated in amino acids to reduce irritation. Unfortunately, the brand doesn't disclose exactly how much retinol is in the complex, leading me to guess that it's around 0.3 to 0.5 percent or lower. The rest of the formula features lactic, malic and tartaric acids to exfoliate and aid absorption, and fatty alcohols and other skin conditioners to moisturize. 
  • Best for: Dry skin and mature skin.

Dermalogica Overnight Retinol Repair 1%

✓Retinol ✓Fragrance-free ✓PUFA-free ✓Low-silicone ✓Paraben-free ✓Dye-free ✓Cruelty-free

Dermalogica Overnight Retinol Repair 1

Dermalogica Overnight Retinol Repair 1%

  • Details: Dermalogica Overnight Retinol Repair 1% contains one percent retinol, and comes with a tube of optional buffer cream. You're meant to mix one part retinol with up to three parts buffer cream, gradually reducing the amount of buffer cream until your skin can tolerate the retinol on its own. Other ingredients in the formula include squalane, glycerin and vitamin C.
  • Best for: Experienced retinol users. The brand recommends starting with the original Overnight Retinol Repair first.

Dermalogica Overnight Retinol Repair

✓Retinol ✓PUFA-free ✓Low-silicone ✓Paraben-free ✓Dye-free Cruelty-free

Dermalogica Overnight Retinol Repair

Dermalogica Overnight Retinol Repair

  • Details: Dermalogica Overnight Retinol Repair contains 0.5 percent retinol. Just like Overnight Retinol Repair 1%, it comes with an optional buffer cream to help reduce irritation. Again, you can start with one part retinol to three parts buffer cream, and gradually increase the proportion of retinol until you can use it on its own. This version also includes squalane, glycerin and vitamin C.
  • Best for: Normal, dry and mature skin. 

Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream

✓Retinol ✓Fragrance-free ✓Low-PUFA ✓Silicone-free ✓Paraben-free ✓Dye-free ✓Cruelty-free

Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream

Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream

  • Details: Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream contains one percent retinol, along with three peptides for more anti-aging benefits. A blend of fatty acids and seven different oils help to reduce irritation and restore moisture. Be cautious with it you are acne-prone, as the oils and coconut alkanes could be quite comedogenic. (I can't use it for that reason!) See my brand review here.
  • Best for: Normal, dry and mature skin. 

Epicuren Retinol Anti-Wrinkle Complex

✓Retinol ✓Low-PUFA ✓Silicone-free ✓Paraben-free ✓Dye-free ✓Cruelty-free

Epicuren Retinol Anti-Wrinkle Complex

Epicuren Retinol Anti-Wrinkle Complex

  • Details: Epicuren Retinol Anti-Wrinkle Complex contains an undisclosed amount of retinol, along with retinyl acetate (one of the weakest retinol esters). I would guess this is a mild retinoid, probably at 0.3 percent retinol or less. However, it does include glycolic acid to enhance results by exfoliating away dead skin cells. 
  • Best for: Retinol beginners and all skin except sensitive.

La Roche-Posay Redermic R Dermatological Anti-Aging Treatment Intensive

✓Retinol ✓Low-PUFA ✓Silicone-free ✓Paraben-free ✓Dye-free

La Roche-Posay Redermic R Dermatological Anti-Aging Treatment Intensive

La Roche-Posay Redermic R Dermatological Anti-Aging Treatment Intensive

  • Details: La Roche-Posay Redermic R Dermatological Anti-Aging Treatment Intensive contains 0.3 percent retinol in a lightweight, non-greasy cream. So it has enough of the active ingredient to produce some results, with minimal irritation. There's also hyaluronic acid and glycerin in the formula for extra hydration.
  • Best for: Retinol beginners and all skin except sensitive.

Medik8 r-Retinoate Youth Activating Cream Intense

✓Retinaldehyde ✓Retinyl retinoate ✓Low-PUFA ✓Low-silicone ✓Paraben-free ✓Dye-free ✓Cruelty-free

Medik8 r-Retinoate Youth Activating Cream Intense

Medik8 r-Retinoate Youth Activating Cream Intense

  • Details: Medik8 r-Retinoate Youth Activating Cream Intense contains retinaldehyde and retinyl retinoate. Although we aren't told the concentration, both are stronger than retinol, without the usual irritating side effects. Along with copper peptides, they target not only lines and wrinkles but also blemishes. Meanwhile, hyaluronic acid, squalane, fatty alcohols and ceramides moisturize your skin in a rich cream. 
  • Best for: Normal to dry and mature skin.

Medik8 r-Retinoate Youth Activating Cream

✓Retinyl retinoate ✓Low-PUFA ✓Silicone-free ✓Paraben-free ✓Dye-free ✓Cruelty-free

Medik8 r-Retinoate Youth Activating Cream

Medik8 r-Retinoate Youth Activating Cream

  • Details: Medik8 r-Retinoate Youth Activating Cream contains an undisclosed amount of retinyl retinoate in a lightweight cream. Compared to retinol, it is eight times stronger, and less irritating. The other ingredients in the formula include vitamin E, hyaluronic acid and two types of vitamin C derivatives.
  • Best for: All skin.

MyChelle Dermaceuticals Remarkable Retinal Night Cream

✓Retinaldehyde ✓Low-PUFA ✓Silicone-free ✓Paraben-free ✓Dye-free ✓Cruelty-free

MyChelle Dermaceuticals Remarkable Retinal Night Cream

MyChelle Dermaceuticals Remarkable Retinal Night Cream

  • Details: MyChelle Dermaceuticals Remarkable Retinal Night Cream has retinaldehyde (although they don't say how much) in a hydrating, non-irritating nighttime moisturizer. The mostly natural formula is packed with humectants and emollients, including glycerin, shea butter and squalane.
  • Best for: All skin.

Paula’s Choice Barrier Repair Moisturizer with Retinol

✓Retinol ✓Low-PUFA ✓Fragrance-free ✓Silicone-free ✓Paraben-free ✓Dye-free ✓Cruelty-free

Paula's Choice Barrier Repair Moisturizer with Retinol

Paula's Choice Barrier Repair Moisturizer with Retinol

  • Details: Paula's Choice Barrier Repair Moisturizer with Retinol contains retinol, along with antioxidants, in a hydrating night cream. The brand doesn't disclose how much is in here, so I believe it's probably under 0.3 percent. The formula includes lots of hydrating ingredients, such as shea butter, squalane and ceramides.
  • Best for: Retinol beginners and normal to dry skin.

Paula’s Choice Clinical Ceramide-Enriched Firming Moisturizer

✓Retinol ✓Low-PUFA ✓Fragrance-free ✓Low-silicone ✓Paraben-free ✓Dye-free ✓Cruelty-free

Paula's Choice Clinical Ceramide-Enriched Firming Moisturizer

Paula's Choice Clinical Ceramide-Enriched Firming Moisturizer

  • Details: Paula's Choice Clinical Ceramide-Enriched Firming Moisturizer is all about restoring your skin's moisture and resilience, and to do so, it uses 0.01 percent retinol. The formula also contains several types of vitamin C derivatives, plus ceramides and fatty alcohols to hydrate. Because of the very low retinol concentration, I would encourage you to move up to a stronger treatment as soon as you can, for more benefits.
  • Best for: Retinol beginners and sensitive skin.

Paula’s Choice Intensive Repair Cream with Retinol

✓Retinol ✓Low-PUFA ✓Fragrance-free ✓Low-silicone ✓Paraben-free ✓Dye-free ✓Cruelty-free

Paula's Choice Intensive Repair Cream with Retinol

Paula's Choice Intensive Repair Cream with Retinol

  • Details: Paula's Choice Intensive Repair Cream with Retinol contains a low 0.01 percent concentration of retinol, plus three anti-aging peptides and an array of antioxidants. The texture is even richer than the brand's Barrier Repair Moisturizer with Retinol, thanks to the high amount of jojoba oil. However, I would only encourage this as a starter product—since not you're not getting much retinol, you should move up to a higher strength as soon as you can tolerate it.
  • Best for: Retinol beginners and dry, sensitive skin.

Philosophy Help Me

✓Retinol PUFA-free ✓Low-silicone ✓Dye-free ✓Cruelty-free

Philosophy Help Me

Philosophy Help Me

  • Details: Philosophy Help Me contains an unknown concentration of retinol in a lightweight lotion format. I would venture a guess that it is a mild to medium-strength product—probably in the 0.3 to 0.5 percent range, which is definitely enough to deliver results. Its other ingredients include glycerin and fatty alcohols.
  • Best for: All skin except sensitive. 

Rejuvi A Night Gel

✓Retinol ✓Low-PUFA ✓Silicone-free ✓Paraben-free ✓Dye-free ✓Cruelty-free

Rejuvi A Night Gel

Rejuvi A Night Gel

  • Details: Rejuvi A Night Gel contains retinol along with two weak retinol esters (retinyl acetate and retinyl palmitate). Unfortunately, we aren't given the concentration, so I assume this is a very mild option, likely 0.3 percent or lower. The texture is a gel, packed with aloe vera and olive oil for light moisture.
  • Best for: Retinol beginners and sensitive skin.

Sanitas RejuvenA

✓Retinol ✓PUFA-free ✓Low-silicone ✓Paraben-free ✓Dye-free ✓Cruelty-free

Sanitas RejuvenA

Sanitas RejuvenA

  • Details: Sanitas RejuvenA contains an unknown concentration of retinol, along with the antioxidants vitamin C and E. My guess is you're probably getting around 0.3 percent retinol in here. High amounts of jojoba oil and hyaluronic acid mean it's also a very nourishing night cream.
  • Best for: Retinol beginners and all skin except sensitive.

Sobel Skin Rx 4.5% Retinol Night Treatment

✓Hydroxypinacolone retinoate ✓Fragrance-free ✓Low-PUFA ✓Silicone-free ✓Paraben-free ✓Dye-free ✓Cruelty-free

Sobel Skin Rx 4.5 Percent Retinol Night Treatment

Sobel Skin Rx 4.5% Retinol Night Treatment

  • Details: Sobel Skin Rx 4.5% Retinol Night Treatment contains 10 percent (240,000 IU) of hydroxypinacolone retinoate, a non-irritating retinoic acid ester. By the brand's math, that's the equivalent of 4.5 percent retinol, or a prescription-strength retinoid—so this is one of the strongest over-the-counter options. The texture is a lightweight lotion; you may need to layer moisturizer on top if you are dry. 
  • Best for: All skin except sensitive.

Vichy LiftActiv Retinol HA Anti-Wrinkle Concentrate

✓Retinol ✓Low-PUFA ✓Silicone-free ✓Paraben-free ✓Dye-free

Vichy LiftActiv Retinol HA Anti-Wrinkle Concentrate

Vichy LiftActiv Retinol HA Anti-Wrinkle Concentrate

  • Details: Vichy LiftActiv Retinol HA Anti-Wrinkle Concentrate contains an undisclosed concentration of retinol in a non-greasy cream. The strength is probably similar to La Roche-Posay 0.3 percent retinol, since they have the same parent company and very similar-looking formulas. There's also hyaluronic acid and glycerin in here to add extra moisture.
  • Best for: Retinol beginners and all skin except sensitive.

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